PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Mayor Bill Peduto visited with student Marlene Burton minutes after they cut the ribbon Friday on the Hill House Passport Academy Charter School.

“The teacher’s connect with you on a personal level,” said HHPACS student Marlene Burton. “They make you feel like you are not the only one. People are going through things. We are going through things. We are here to help you guys and they actually talk to you and sit us down and say, ‘What’s going on?’ Even though they don’t know us from a can of paint, they actually care.”

The center opened in the lower level of the Kauffman Center in Pittsburgh’s Hill District back in September, and today they wanted to celebrate the achievements of 18-to-21-year-olds who chose to go back to school to finish their degrees.

“I used to say the way to get a gun out of the kids’ hand was to put a paycheck in it, but the diploma is the gateway to the paycheck,” said Peduto. “And it really becomes evident time after time after time.”

“There have been independent choices for them — it wasn’t a parent,” said Cheryl Hall-Russell with the Hill House Association. “It wasn’t somebody else. It was them saying we can do this and somebody has made something available for us to pursue our dreams.”

Whether their classes are math, English, history or science, they are taking their education into their own hands.

“For these kids though it’s a lot more courage that is needed to be able to say that, ‘A few years ago I dropped out. My reading level is only at fourth grade, but I’m going to go back. I’m going to work hard and I’m going to get my high school diploma,’” said Peduto.

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